(Posted May 5, 2021)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
One of the most treasured possessions in Dwight Karkan’s home is his collection of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels.
Given to him by his mother, they are the physical representation of the beginning of his passion for mysteries and his determination to never give up on challenges.
But when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer a week after she celebrated her third birthday, he found himself at a loss, asking himself: Why is this happening? What is the purpose? How do I help my family navigate this journey? How do I navigate this journey? How can I use my abilities to help others who are walking, or will walk, this same path?
At first, he found no good answers, or at least none that God was willing to share at the time.
“We wanted to know where he was directing us,” said Karkan, a youth pastor at Otterbein Church in Waynesboro, Pa.
During an endless day and night, one that saw Karkan and his wife, Amber, watch helplessly as Selah underwent chemotherapy to fight acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Karkan remembered the comforting times in childhood when he’d curl up with a good book, immersing himself in a world with characters who instilled strength and resolve in the reader.
Then he began to daydream, instead of just remember. He dreamt of people curling around a book of his own creation, finding wonder and respite within. He envisioned readers connecting with his characters, laughing, crying and solving mysteries alongside his heroes and heroines.
He figured it was a pipe dream; after all, no publishing house wanted to give his creation a chance at the time. But he couldn’t get the thought out of his head.
He never believed that something he wrote could make an impact in this world. But then it did. And now, Bixby Timmons, the heroine in his new book, is not only taking people on a grand adventure, she is helping to make sure children who are battling cancer can live to have their own adventures.
Karkan never planned to become an author of young adult novels–or any novel, for that matter.
“Being a writer never crossed my mind,” he said. “While I was a good student when I went to Madison-Plains and had good grades, I didn’t like all the intricacies of the English comma and its rules.”
Instead, his young heart was set on becoming an archaeologist but in the vein of Indiana Jones, of course.
“I knew I wouldn’t get to wear the hat, use the leather whip or go to locations with booby traps,” he said, “but I wanted to go on those puzzle and riddle adventures where the world opens to questions, answers and possibilities.”
As he got older, he found a calling that, while still being all of those things, is more grounded in reality.
It was 1998 and Karkan had just graduated from Madison-Plains High School. Between commuting to The Ohio State University for general education and going to Sam’s Club where he worked as a store manager, he volunteered at church, helping younger adults.
“I grew up in the church, and I enjoyed all of the adventures we went on,” said Karkan, who moved to South Solon in the 1980s after his father retired from the Navy, “but there was something that stuck with me as I got older and was able to help younger teens as they went through this difficult time in life.”
He said he felt blessed that they confided in him and proud that he was able to “walk alongside them,” offering advice on their journey toward self-discovery.
“I felt my calling,” he said.
After two years at Ohio State, Karkan enrolled at Concordia University in Chicago, Ill., graduating in 2006 with a degree in theology. He soon took a position as a youth pastor at a church in Buffalo, NY.
Then came 2014, and Dwight and Amber were at a crossroads.
Having just relocated to central Pennsylvania, the small family wanted to donate funds to a local church but had yet to commit to one. So, with the prompting of his wife, Karkan anonymously sent out riddles to the community, explaining that whoever solved the most could pick the charity the family would support.
“I was glued to the Facebook page to see who would solve the riddle,” he said. “I watched it like a hawk.”
He said that when it was over, he was energized by the community’s engagement in the game.
“It reminded me of when I would make maps for my friends and have them find ‘treasure’ all over South Solon,” he laughed.
Knowing how much fun her husband had pulling this off, Amber suggested he write a book featuring all of the things he loved–action, adventure, humor and mystery. Karkan thought, “Why not?”
“Three weeks later, I had a draft ready to go,” he said.
That draft was titled “Bixby Timmons and the Dragonthorp Riddle.” The heroine is a 13-year-old girl whose family becomes the caretakers of a mysterious manor that holds the clues to the whereabouts of a tech billionaire who has been missing for a decade. Should she solve the riddles found throughout the home, she could win $100 million–that is, if she can fend off the other seekers looking to sabotage her efforts and claim the prize as their own.
Karkan said he knew he had something good on his hands, something fun and appropriate for the entire family, but he didn’t know what to do with it.
Enter Nora Roberts, the prolific, best-selling author known for her romance novels.
“I went to Nora’s bookshop (in Boonsboro, Md.) and was talking to her manager about the publishing process, and (Nora) came over and said that if I love what this book has to say, I have to find an agent and get a publisher,” Karkan recounted.
Immediately, he started that pursuit.
In late 2015, he signed with Jessica Schmeidler, an agent with Golden Wheat Literary, but found it difficult to get a publisher to sign on.
“It makes things a little more difficult when you say that this isn’t just a debut novel, but it’s the first novel of a four-part series,” said Karkan.
He pressed on, despite his book going into the “slush pile” on the desks of semi-interested parties.
A growing family kept him distracted from the waiting process. Then, when Selah was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, he put thoughts of the book on the backburner.
Coincidentally, as Selah embarked on her treatment plan, interest in Karkan’s book picked up. In September 2019, Tiny Fox Press signed Karkan and plans were made for the book’s release in digital and soft cover formats.
Well into 2020, and with Selah’s outlook improving by the month, word began to spread about Bixby Timmons.
One person who heard about the novel and helped to spread the word locally was retired Madison-Plains teacher and librarian Paula Herald.
Herald said she heard from a friend that one of the Karkan children had written a book. So, she went to the Bixby Timmons Facebook page to learn more.
When she got there, she saw that Karkan was running an advanced reader giveaway contest to those who could correctly solve one of his riddles. Being an avid riddle fan, she jumped into the fray and won.
“I received my copy in January (2021) but, to be honest, I couldn’t read it because my daughter, who is 30, was all excited and wanted to read it first,” Herald said.
The book was passed from family member to family member, but eventually Herald did get to read it and enjoyed it thoroughly.
“It’s a quick and easy read, but there are enough twists and turns to keep any adult interested,” she said.
Afterward, Herald visited the Facebook page of another local retired teacher and told their members all about it.
“It’s so exciting as a teacher to see kids (that came through the district) that have a talent reach their potential,” she said.
“Bixby Timmons and the Dragonthorp Riddle” was released on March 30 and has quickly climbed the digital charts.
With people throughout the world showing interest in his work, Karkan said he wanted to redirect that attention onto something else–Selah and her journey.
“My family and I feel fortunate because there are so many parents who get a diagnosis like Selah’s and don’t have that same positive outcome,” he said.
That is why Karkan and his family–which also includes Delaney, 3, and Theo, 1–decided to donate all proceeds from book sales to two organizations: Hershey Medical Center; and the Four Diamonds Fund through Penn State University’s THON, a student-run philanthropy that helps children and their families impacted by cancer.
“They saved my daughter’s life,” he said. “There is no amount of money that can cover that.”
Karkan also has donated several hundred copies of his book to children in hospitals who are receiving treatment of any kind.
“If I can give them something to take them away from their reality for a few hours, to get lost in Bixby’s world, I would have accomplished something special,” he said
Who knows? Maybe Karkan’s series will still be on their shelves years from now, offering inspiration and physical reminders of their own strength and determination.
“Bixby Timmons and the Dragonthorp Riddle” can be ordered via amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or tinyfoxpress.com. The second book in the series is slated for release this fall. The third and fourth books are scheduled to come out in 2022.